Microbe Hunter

Gross science news of the day brought to you by Meera.

Did you sneeze today? Go to the bathroom? Ride the subway? Get out of bed? Chances are you picked up and dropped off thousands germs along the way. While many microbes help us survive, some germs can be pretty nasty – and sometimes can make you sick.

How easily can germs spread you ask? Since germs are microscopic, meaning they are invisible to the naked eye, we can’t see them living all over our skin. We’ve created a way to help the K-1 class in our Kids Crew after school program see how easily icky germs can spread and teach them the importance of hand washing. 

Using an old shoe box, some duct tape, a black light, foam, and blacklight sensitive Glitterbug potion. you can make your own Microbe Hunter testing station in just a few minutes.

Cut two hand holes in the side of the box and line the holes with foam paper to reduce the amount of daylight that enters the box. Cut a hole or two in the lid for kids to look through. Tape the blacklight inside the box, insert your hands, and look through the holes on the lid!

Glowbug lotion is blacklight sensitive, which means it has pigments that are invisible to the naked eye but glow blue-white under the blacklight. Kids can rub the lotion on their hands, insert them into the Microbe Hunter, wash their hands, and check again.

The parts of the hand that still “light up” in the Microbe Hunter can indicate areas that didn’t get washed well (often under fingernails, between fingers, and near joints). Those are areas where millions of germs might be living.  K-1 washed their hands again quickly after being grossed out- but realized they may not have been using the right hand washing technique.

To keep your hands germ free, the kids in K-1 suggest:

1. Use soap!

2.  Wash your hands while singing “Happy Birthday” or the alphabet – twice.

3. Don’t forget the hard to reach spots such as nail beds and crevices near your joints.

Happy hand-washing!

 

 

“Decomposition” — an icky poem by Jordan, for IckyFest 2014

In the cold winter time, plant cells freeze and thaw;
This process is just part of nature’s law.
The cell walls burst and get all squishy…
That’s why this old pumpkin here is so mushy!

(Eventually, this pumpkin in our garden will “decompose,” or turn back into soil, just like all dead plants… the process is called “decomposition!”)
 
IckyFest 2014 – January 11 & 12! All special programs are FREE with admission! Come play with us!
 
- The Science Team

Girls in STEM

 

In order to come up with inventive, creative solutions for the mounting global challenges we're to face- climate change, loss of biodiversity, more droughts, more extreme storms-we're going to need all hands on deck! Unfortunately, it seems that we might be pushing away a good 50% of those creative minds from the fields of science, math, and engineering. Check out these alarming statistics presented by The Engineering Project on the trends of women in science education.

What do you think about these stats? Of course, there are lots of different forms of intelligence and creative thinkers who thrive in other fields-education, literature, history, philosophy-are also vital as we adapt to our changing world.

What do you think? Have you seem girls in your classroom transition away from their interests in science and math? How big of a role does gender play in your classroom? Have you ever caught yourself reinforcing the false belief that boys are just innately better in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields?

Trash, Landfills, and You

So, for the past two weeks we have been talking about what to do with waste to avoid trashing it – you can reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, and mulch. But, eventually, some things are just plain trash.

To help kids get engaged in the need to avoid trash, it's important to talk about where trash ends up… everything you put in a garbage bin eventually gets picked up by a garbage truck and from there taken to a landfill. Landfills are big places – and big is a hard idea for kids to imagine.

… so instead of starting with a landfill, start with the waste generated in your classroom in only one day.

Give each student a plastic bag and tie one end of it to their belt loops (have some lengths of string available in case they don’t have loops). For an entire day, have them throw everything they would normally put in the trash, recycling, or compost bin into the plastic bag. Do throw away smelly items and have students draw a picture of those items and keep the pictures in the plastic bag (e.g., a picture of an apple instead of carrying around the apple core).

At the end of the day, have each student dump the items out on a surface in the classroom. Have each student tally, list or draw the waste they generated. In addition to counting items, you could weigh, graph, or measure your waste in other ways. Once finished, pile all the waste from the entire class together and hold a class meeting. What will happen to these things when we really throw them away? Do students think they have generated a lot of waste or very little? Is there any way to make less waste tomorrow?

By now, students may already know about compost and recycling… finish the activity by asking – what happens to the things that can neither be recycled nor composted?

Use an image like the one below from Managua, Nicaragua to explain where trash ends up (click it for a higher resolution image).

CHURECA7The combination of collecting their own trash and this image should help students better understand trash and landfills. Check back in the next few days for more activities designed to do just that.

Not All Waste is Trash

So, let’s say that you have something that is waste and you can’t reuse it so you want to get rid of it. Most people would just throw that waste in the trash…

What is trash in the image below?

Nothing! None of that should end up in the trash can. The first group shows banana peels, eggshells, and leafy greens being placed in a compost bin. The rest of the items – newspapers and cereal boxes, glass bottles and jars, cans, and plastic bottles – can all be recycled. (Recycling varies from region to region, but these items can certainly all be recycled here in New York City.)

Waste is something that you no longer want or you can no longer use. Trash is something useless that will end up in a landfill.

Not all waste is trash. In fact, many of the things we throw away are not trash and should be composted or recycled instead. So that’s what we’re going to talk about for the next few days… because it’s awesome to have smaller landfills and more productive uses for our waste.

Where does the waste go?

You’re finished with something. It has served it’s use. You don’t want it anymore. What do you do next?

Today, we’re going to identify 4 places waste can go and 1 way to prevent waste from happening at all, and then we’ll go into those in more depth over the next week plus. These are kid-friendly definitions to use with individuals of all ages.

With waste, you can:

Composting takes food waste, turns it into soil, and then you can grow new food, like tomatoes!

Reuse: It is great to be able to reuse items; unlike recycling, reusing allows you to give things a second or third life without having to make any changes. Consider trading an old book with a friend – you each get something new to read.

Compost: Composting helps take waste and use it to create great soil, which will then be used to grow new food. This blog already has LOTS of information about composting if you want to learn more about that.

Recycle: Recycling helps turn unwanted materials into something new and wanted. However, recycling requires energy and is therefore not quite as sustainable as reusing or composting.

Landfill compactor

Landfills are gross. By reusing, composting, recycling, and reducing, we prevent waste from ending up in one.

Trash:Everything that cannot be reused, recycled, or composted – plastic utensils, cellophane wrappers, Styrofoam trays – is trash.  It will be thrown away and end up in a landfill, which is gross. Reducing the amount of trash keeps landfills from getting out of control!

Reduce: Before you generate waste, you can prevent it. Think before you buy and you will have less waste, which is great.

For the next few entries, we are going to give you more information about reusing, recycling, reducing, and just how icky landfills are!!

Where does the water come from?

What a fantastic question! New York City uses over one billion gallons of water every day. That essential water comes to us via aqueducts that connect us to two different watersheds – the Croton watershed just up the Hudson and the Catskill / Delaware Watershed Area further upstate.

(A watershed is all the land whose water feeds through tributaries into a given larger body of water, like a lake, river, or bay. Therefore, the Croton watershed is all the area whose water, including rain water and snow melt, eventually flows into the Croton River.)

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for overseeing the quality of our water, including working with upstate authorities to keep our aqueducts full of clean water (emphasis on both full and clean).

If you're explaining this to students, its a great idea to talk about what these upstate reservoirs are like. You most likely have students who have never been to another part of New York state. To help them envision the scene, read the first few pages of Water Dance by Thomas Locker. This beautifully illustrated book is set in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, the  region where our water originates.

After reading Water Dance, have a conversation with students about what would happen if people took too much water from the lake for wasteful purposes – would rain replace every drop we took? Would it change the natural landscape shown in the book? Then, ask students what they might do to use only the water they need from the lakes and reservoirs upstate. Students who aware of the source of our water and understand that it is not, in fact, an unlimited resource are more likely to appreciate the need to conserve water.

The Water Cycle and Water Conservation

In New York, the water cycle is taught in 4th grade, although in practice it often happens earlier than that. Students are taught that due to a series of forces, water cycles through the Earth and never disappears.

Water Cycle - blank

The problem with this explanation of the water cycle is that it doesn’t quite account for water conservation – if water is infinitely recycled throughout the Earth, then what’s the danger of taking a 30 minute shower? I didn’t “waste” the water because it can never go away!

This very valid question requires a more nuanced understanding of the water cycle. Yes, it is the case that water never disappears from the Earth. However, human beings do still “use” water with potentially negative consequences, including the following:

  • The water that evaporates does not necessarily fall down straight where it evaporated. Water moves through the air. If individuals living the desert use up all their groundwater to water artificial lawns, the water that evaporates will rain on a different part of the world and the desert town will be even drier than it was before.
  • When humans interact with water, they run the risk of polluting the water. Whether its poop, fertilizers, soap, or something else, every time we use water to flush our toilets, water our plants, or wash our hands, we add chemicals to the water. Those then have to be filtered out before the water can be safely returned to the rivers, lakes, and oceans around us. This process of treating the water is time consuming and expensive. The less water you use, the less treatment is needed, the more water is available for future use by humans, other animals, or plants.

Like many things we teach children, the water cycle is both simple and complicated. Giving students a more complicated picture of water will help them understand the semi-paradox that no water ever disappears, and yet we can waste water.

Tomorrow, we will return to the water cycle with a great water cycle game for students of all ages.

PS: For a water cycle resource for early childhood, check out Round the Garden, which tells the story of the water cycle through gardening.

Combined Sewage Overflows!

In some parts of the country, sewers are single – home and business waste is piped to sewage treatment centers and storm water (from rain or snow) is separately sent to the nearest body of water (POTW stands for Publicly Owned Treatment Works, where waste water is treated):

But not in New York City! New York has a combined sewer system, which works more like this:

As you can see, when it rains, the storm water overflows and the mixed storm water and sewage flow untreated into local rivers. EWWW!!!!!! This is called a Combined Sewage Outflow or CSO and it is major contributor to the pollution of local water.

Where does this happen in NYC? Red Tier 1 dots are where the worst CSOs happen.

Click on the map for much more information

And this is not confined to New York City. Large parts of the country have combined sewer systems, leading to the risk of CSOs:

Now that we see the problem – what is the solution? One answer is better infrastructure, including things like green roofs. The idea is that the right blend of soil and plants absorbs rainwater and then gradually releases it into the storm drains, preventing the overflow. Again, the EPA has lots of information on green infrastructure if you want to learn more.

Why are we talking about this now? Well, first of all it’s information that most New Yorkers (children and adults) do not know, and learning new things is cool. But also, we will be talking more on this blog about green infrastructure in the future and we wanted to explain the problem before considering possible solutions.

… and don’t forget to check out Icky Fest at Brooklyn Children’s Museum this Saturday for more icky information about NYC’s sewers.

(Thanks to the EPA for diagrams 1, 2, and 4. For more information about sewer problems across the United States, check out the EPA’s webpage on CSO’s.)

Amazing Arthropods

In the educator’s guide, My Green Community, we have a section focusing on insects. Students build a pitfall to humanely trap insects, observe them, learn basic insect anatomy, and sing a song to reinforce the new words they have learned.

Due to space constraints, we didn’t get into the difference between arthropods and insects. So let’s break it down here.

Arthropods are a sub-group of invertebrates (animals with no backbone). Arthropods, then, are divided into their own subgroups:

  • Insects (cricket; bee and wasp; butterfly and moth; cicada; ant; grasshopper; praying mantis; firefly, ladybug and every kind of beetle)
  • Arachnids (tick; mite; scorpion; spider including tarantula)
  • Crustaceans (all kinds of crab; lobster; shrimp; crawdad; barnacle; pill bug also called roly poly)
  • Other! (like centipede and millipede)

All of those animals are arthropods and they all have two things in common: jointed legs (legs that can bend) and an exoskeleton (their skeleton is on the outside of their bodies). What makes an insect different from other arthropods?

A section from the educator's guide

Insects, in addition to jointed legs and an exoskeleton, have a body divided into three sections: head, thorax, and abdomen.

And that’s enough for now! Check back over the next few days for more insect and arthropod activities…